Ryan Wood and Aaron Nagler look ahead to Thursday's preseason matchup between the Packers and Raiders, trying to read the tea leaves regarding how much quarterback Aaron Rodgers will play. (Aug. 15, 2016)
GREEN BAY - He knew what plays the defense would run before most snaps, if not all of them. Green Bay Packers defenders tried to disguise their assignments Monday. Tried to trick their two-time MVP quarterback.
But Aaron Rodgers knew.
So the competition wasn’t quite level out there on Ray Nitschke Field. But the playbook only factors so much. A quarterback still has to make throws, and Rodgers proved once again there are very few in his company when it comes to making throws.
In a red-zone drill, Rodgers dropped touchdown after touchdown from all kinds of impossible angles, beating mostly good coverage. There was a no-look swing pass to running back Brandon Burks. An out-route over cornerback Sam Shields’ head. Another touchdown to Burks, with Rodgers rolling to avoid coverage, then throwing over corner LaDarius Gunter.
What Rodgers did to his team’s starting defense was surgical. He looked like the best quarterback in the NFL. Dominant.
He also looked like he was ready for Week 1.
That’s what Rodgers said last week, before becoming a healthy scratch in the Packers' preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns. He backed it up Monday. With almost exclusive scout-team reps this week, it seems unlikely Rodgers will play Thursday night against the Oakland Raiders in the Packers' second preseason game.
“If I play,” Rodgers said, “it won’t be a whole lot.”
It’s an unconventional approach, though perhaps not a surprising one after the Packers’ 2015 season was wrecked because of receiver Jordy Nelson’s torn anterior cruciate ligament in the second preseason game.
Rodgers was inactive for the final two preseason games last season. So Thursday could be the fourth straight he doesn’t play.
“When you have a major injury to a star player like we had last year in the preseason,” Rodgers said, “I think it’s only natural that there’s a little bit of a more cautious approach to the rest of that preseason, and then to the next season.”
Rodgers said he expects to play “extended time” when the Packers travel to San Francisco on Aug. 26 for their third preseason game, and “probably not much to not play” in the preseason finale Sept. 1 at Kansas City.
Playing-time predictions for preseason games are fluid. During halftime of the Packers' preseason opener, Rodgers said he expected to play against the Raiders.
It wouldn’t be ideal for Rodgers to play most or all of the first half in San Francisco — a normal workload for starting quarterbacks in third preseason games — with no prior snaps in the first two. Quarterbacks typically build to that workload with a drive or two the previous week. Rodgers said he doesn’t see it as an issue.
McCarthy said many factors are considered before deciding playing time for preseason games, especially with quarterbacks. A team’s medical report — specifically offensive linemen — can affect whether a quarterback plays an exhibition. But McCarthy won’t call preseason games meaningless.
Even if Rodgers is ready to play Week 1 now, he’d like to see the Packers' offense with their top quarterback.
“This is not an individual game,” McCarthy said. “This is a team game. I think there are individuals on our football team, due to their experience, the amount of work they’ve been able to get so far in practice, that are potentially probably ready to play. But play time in the preseason is more about playing guys like Aaron, Clay Matthews, how they’re rolled into the game with the combinations of who they’re playing with.”
The Packers could be waiting for Nelson’s return from the physically unable to perform list, hoping their No. 1 receiver and starting quarterback can cram as many preseason snaps together as possible.
There has been a common theme building over the past couple weeks. Ask any player, and he’ll tell you practices are more important than preseason games. Certainly, there’s value when Rodgers competes against the Packers’ first-team defense on Ray Nitschke Field.
Of course, some things can’t be simulated in practice. Rodgers doesn’t know what plays a defense will run before the snap during the preseason. The game’s speed is faster, with live tackles adding another element.
So Rodgers might be ready for Week 1, but that isn’t really the goal. The Packers must get their entire starting offense, quarterback included, ready for their Sept. 11 trip to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
They might get only one preseason game with their starting quarterback to prepare.
“You’re seeing some of the marquee players play less,” Rodgers said. “Running backs notoriously haven’t played a whole lot in the preseason, but now you’re seeing quarterbacks play less and less. Obviously, my reps have gone down over the years. It’s just the way it is.
“I think everybody feels like four or five (preseason games) is probably more than we need to get ready, but until they make a change there that’s the way it’s going to be, and we’re going to be smart about it.”